Junkyard Gem: 1980 Pontiac Phoenix LJ Hatchback

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The car-building world was rushing headlong into front-wheel-drive by the late 1970s, eager to reap the weight-saving and space-enhancing benefits of front-drive designs. General Motors designed an innovative FWD platform to replace the embarrassingly outdated Chevrolet Nova and its siblings, and that ended up being the Chevrolet Citation. The other US-market GM car divisions (except Cadillac) got a piece of the X-Body action, and the Pontiac version was called the Phoenix. Here’s one of those first-year Phoenixes, not doing a very good job of rising from its snow-covered ashes in a Colorado self-service yard.

Pontiac had used the Phoenix name on a luxed-up iteration of Pontiac’s version of the Chevy Nova during the 1977-1979 model years, and so it made sense to apply that name to the Pontiac-ized Citation. Phoenix production continued through the 1984 model year (the Citation managed to hang on through 1985). Just to confuse everyone, the Nova name was revived in 1985, on a NUMMI-built Toyota Corolla.

The LJ trim level was the nicest one for the 1980 Phoenix, and it included lots of trim upgrades and convenience features.

However, even Phoenix LJ buyers had to pay extra for a three-speed automatic transmission instead of the base four-on-the-floor manual ($337, or about $1,291 in 2022 dollars). If you wanted air conditioning, that was another $564 and you had to get the $164 power steering and the $76 power brakes with it (total cost in 2022 dollars: $3,080). Affordable cars weren’t so affordable back then, not once you started adding basic options.

Both generations of the Phoenix had grilles influenced by those of the Pontiacs of earlier years.

The base engine was the chugging 2.5-liter Iron Duke four-cylinder, but a 2.8-liter V6 was optional. This car has the V6, rated at 115 horsepower rather than the Duke’s miserable 90 horses. The price tag: 225 bucks, or 862 inflation-adjusted 2022 bucks.

The Phoenix was available just as a two-door coupe and five-door hatchback. The MSRP on this car would have started at $6,127, or around $23,469 now.

That would have been a pretty good deal even after paying for the options, with the Phoenix’s excellent mix of good interior space and solid fuel economy… but the Citation and its kin (the Oldsmobile Omega and Buick Skylark as well as the Phoenix) suffered from seemingly endless, highly publicized recalls and quality problems. One of my college friends had a nearly-new ’84 Phoenix, and it was just about the worst lemon I’ve ever experienced. What should have been an import-slaughtering triumph for The General ended up being a big disappointment. Sales started out very strong, then fell off a cliff after a couple of years.

That’s hard to take, because here was a compact front-wheel-drive sedan design that was genuinely American. It drove like Americans liked their sedans to drive, held five adults in reasonable comfort, and stretched your gas dollar. Meanwhile, Chrysler roared up with its brand-new line of similarly innovative K-Cars starting in 1981, and Toyota began selling the American-market-centric Camry in 1983. 

The X-Body Phoenix has become all but extinct by now, so I was glad to find this saddening-but-important piece of American automotive history. That’s what makes it a Junkyard Gem.

The first Pontiac to get front-wheel-drive!

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